For a long time, both in rhetoric and in active contemplation, we have wondered Where is Heather? If you’re new to this conversation, here’s a brief history: Heather was a 9th grader featured in the iconic Private Universe video. This program began with interviews of Harvard students on graduation day being asked to explain causes for seasons and moon phases. Heather and several classmates attending the public school across the street expressed similar confusion about these topics. Many science educators were introduced to alternative conceptions, conceptual change, and qualitative research via this video. This articulate 14-year-old showed us that the bright student could misconstrue ideas in all kinds of amazing ways, and at the same time enamor us with logic and resourcefulness.
The problem is that Heather isn’t a 14-year-old anymore. Like others who “grew up” into science teacher educators, during each science methods course we pull the video off the shelf as if Heather is a preserved specimen in a jar. However, Heather is not the character we have contrived. Science educators cobbled together an involved narrative about Heather based on a few hours of classroom video and a handful of individual interviews. This fiction does not describe who Heather is now, nor ever was. We should be embarrassed that we turned a 1987 ninth grader into an unwitting paragon for science education. Further, we ought to be ashamed by our complicity since no one gave Heather any influence over her persona. True: her mother signed a video permission form. However, the science education community treated this as a license to invent stories based in a reality as thin as the VHS tape on which Heather was recorded.
Through a series of serendipitous events and surreptitious efforts, we have been able to follow-up with the real Heather. When the two of us talked with her over an extended lunch about her life since the Private Universe, she dished out considerable food for thought. When we invited her to share with a larger audience, she brilliantly devised ways to communicate her musing by engaging the attendees at the 2014 Crossroads in a collective craft project. Along the way, we became acquainted with the real, genuine, adult Heather who, like all of us, is a collage of experiences, relationships and aspirations for the future.
But are we falling into the same trap once again? Here we are: talking about Heather, posting images of her in a manner reminiscent of the actions by the Private Universe creators. This concern was voiced during our Town Hall session at the end of our conference. Interestingly, this revelation was magnified as our time with Heather increased. She interacted with the conference attendees for twice as long as she had with Private Universe videographers. Along the way we learned that Heather embraced her role in science education, and that she was more than her 9th grade self and those misconceptions. In retrospect, this should have seemed obvious; but we have been enculturated. Moreover, so many of us had “used” Heather, her image and her youthful eloquence, to such good effect for so long that we’d forgotten that Heather was substantially more than a voice describing indirect light in ways that confound scientists but are reasonable to architects.
Although we went to great lengths to make bring Heather into the conversation on her own terms and as her own self, we realized the potential for not representing Heather as she wants to be. It would be reasonable and responsible to ask Heather makes of all of this. It turns out she described it before we had the chance to inquire. Incidentally, we agree with her that this professional learning event is better than Disneyland. In fact, we’ve been especially delighted to see that she intuits Crossroads better than most:
The goal of this activity is to leave the conference
with two pieces of original art. One piece is purely
yours. The second piece is a collaborative artwork.
These two artworks represent the purpose of the
Crossroads conference; you leave with both the
progress you’ve made on your own work, alongside
the impressions made by participating with your
The literal and metaphorical use of a collage was a gift from Heather to all of us. We produced something not by avoiding mistakes, but by embracing them. We worked together, side-by-side and eventually left with new pieces contributed by others that we packed into our bags. In turn we gifted pieces of our own background, experiences, and ongoing efforts towards the ventures of colleagues. The exchanges occurred while producing cut-and-paste craft collages as well as through our collegial conversation. People brought their Vexations and Ventures and left with them thoroughly cut apart and reworked.
During our time with Heather, we learned that despite our imaginations we still were not fully prepared for what would transpire. Initially, there was the awe that we had forged an intersection between Heather and ourselves. Those who know us well just nod (or shake) their heads and say “of course you invited Heather.” It was all in a day’s work/play: the same whimsy and gumption that created Crossroads in the first place. Still, our amazement that Heather-of-Private-Universe was our contracted presenter was replaced by a collective awe of Heather-the-artist/teacher/mother. We did not fully realize all that we could learn from Heather. And yet somehow she knew and took the license and liberties we granted her. The most important lesson was not that Heather’s misconceptions didn’t disable her for life – although that’s important to note. Rather we were reminded about the necessity of continually reaching out to others for fresh perspectives, advice, and inspiration. That’s why Crossroads first came into existence. From now on, each time we see the 9th grader in Private Universe, there will be the reminders about the real Heather and the important lessons she continues to craft for others.
Despite all the lessons about graciousness and generosity, many at Crossroads asked to be photographed with Heather. Each request began with: “I’m sorry, but is it too weird to ask if we could get a picture together?” Heather knowingly accepted the role she had in so many of our science educator trajectories, gladly posing for those portraits. John and I were just as pleased as anyone else.